It was on a Saturday night in January 2020, shortly after Anya and I had returned from a month of walking in La Palma. We´d arranged to go to Anya´s niece´s place, who´d invited some friends around for the night.
It was meant to be a pleasant, convivial evening.
But thanks to me, it turned out a bit differently.
It started with flamenco and ended with aboriginal fire stick agriculture.
Quite a distance to travel in a few hours: Spain to Australia.
I would never have attempted it without her.
She led to me attempting to do the impossible.
Nina was the 6 year daughter of Anya´s niece – she was blond and blue eyed – and her partner was a Peruvian of Indian descent. Nina had dark eyes, olive complexion and thick long black hair. She was tall for her age even by Dutch standards. She was fluent in Spanish and Dutch.
Anya´s niece lived in a village outside Rotterdam. We rode our bikes there, a trip of about an hour. It was a cold night, near zero. For most of the way the bike tracks were illuminated but in the last section, they weren’t and in the dark, surrounded by canals, we lost our way.
Arriving a bit later than we’d planned, we took off our coats, gloves, scarves and helmets, in the entry hall and walked into a crowded lounge, where we were met by the hub bub of an eclectic mix of people chatting and laughing. Besides a white Dutch couple, there was a Turkish woman with short hair married to a German; a woman with a Chinese father and Indian mother and her black African partner ( both of them hailing from a former Dutch colony); a Bulgarian couple; several Latinos and their Dutch partners.
After doing the rounds and shaking hands with everyone and introducing ourselves – as is the Dutch custom – and sitting down – Nina turned and approached me and said a shrill tone:
‘Peter! Peter! Australia’s burning! The Koalas have been burnt up!’
This was a very different Nina than the girl we had seen last time.
Since the age of 4 she had attended lessons in flamenco dancing. A few days before we left for La Palma, we went to a school gala day on a Saturday afternoon, where Nina was scheduled to dance before a large crowd of parents, teachers and kids.
From a p.a. system, a rich baritone voice sang a melody to the accompaniment of a guitar and orchestra.
Nina appeared on stage in a long red and black dress with a long sleeved black shirt, a fan in one hand and a castanet in the other. Her long black hair was tied up in a bun with a silk rose secured on one side of her head. She was a shy girl but when she began dancing, all her shyness vanished. She picked up the music and away she went – metamorphosing into a spirited Spanish belle, her feet deftly pirouetting, her fan in her left outstretched hand slowly rotating in semi-circles, the castanet clicking in her right. She knew exactly what she was doing. Her teachers at the flamenco school had done their work well.
I found myself drifting in foreign places.
Spain. An old Spain, before the era of mass tourism and high rise hotels. Centuries ago, in the mountains of Andalucía, flamenco is born from the music and customs of Jews and Gypsies; an ancient symbiosis and a precious one.
In Nina’s dancing I caught a breath of something called culture.
After Nina had changed out of her Spanish dress and joined us as walked back home, I praised her to the skies and I meant it.
I couldn’t tell her that thanks to her, I had travelled to far places. That she had helped me appreciate the value of culture.
So I settled for ‘Nina, you were fantastic!’
A month later on this Saturday night in January 2020, I was suddenly confronted by another Nina. Gone was the Spanish belle.
Now she was distraught little girl on the verge of tears.
The bushfires in Australia had begun in October – and in January were still burning. In size and extent and destruction, these bushfires dwarfed all previous bushfires in Australia – and for that matter, everywhere else in the world (including the fires in California in 2017).
In our age of global communications, when everyone has a mobile phone, news travelled fast – it could reach billions of people within seconds – from hut dwellers in India to billionaires in Monaco, from nomadic herders in Africa to factory workers in China.
Yes, news travelled fast.
And images – and videos – well, they travelled just as fast and had a greater impact. And as far as that went, you couldn’t think of an event more likely to make an impact on this immense global audience than the bushfires in Australia. Walls of flame. Immense clouds of smoke – which travelled around the globe and were experienced in Chile. Fire fighters – ‘fierys’ – driving into walls of flame. Gaunt devastated, landscape with thousands of charred trees and burned out homes and farms.
Scenes like something from another planet, a place hostile to all forms of life. But it was happening on our planet.
Your country’s burning!
I had heard that refrain before – oh, hadn’t I? – and almost got used to it.
My country constantly in the news.
It was hard to escape. Didn’t matter where I went, where I was.
Even on the island of La Palma, one of the smallest and least developed of the Canary Islands – I heard it whilst out on the trails.
Spanish, Italian, German, Belgian.
The inevitable reaction:
‘Australia? Your country’s burning!
It got to the point where I started saying I was Dutch.
Besides the shame, there was a story there which I knew was just too difficult to unpack.
So I kept quiet.
Took the easy way out.
Then came Nina.
‘Peter! Peter! Australia’s burning! The Koalas have been burnt up!’
From the images of the bushfires she had seen, it was the koalas which really pulled at her heartstrings. She had seen dead koalas and others, singed or badly injured.
I didn’t want to add to her grief and mention the wallabies and kangaroos, the wombats, echidnas, birds, reptiles – over 1 billion animals – incinerated. Many rare species, such as the Dunnart on Kangaroo Island, were finished. But other more common species, such as the Koala, were now faced by future extinction, especially if such catastrophic bushfires were to be repeated.
Which seemed likely.
I kept my adult’s knowledge to myself. Along with my fear of a world where the only species that proliferated was homo sapiens.
Another thing: Nina was too young to know anything about Australia’s Prime Minister. About blindness, cynicism, selfishness and cold calculation. About the horrors of the world.
Something to feel envious about.
To wish you were six years old again!
The adults though, they knew about Australia’s Prime Minster.
Then she came out with something so incredibly naïve that I had to try not to laugh.
‘Peter, why didn’t someone phone up the fire brigade? The fire brigade puts out fires!’
There I was confronted by the disarming, beautiful innocence of a 6 year old kid.
Why didn’t someone phone up the fire brigade?
Then the koalas wouldn’t have burned.
Answer that one Pete.
Where to start?
I was confronted by a challenge.
I wasn’t sure how to broach this.
I explained as simply as I could that the fires were too big. Big, big fires.
I told her about flames 60, 70 metres high – higher than the two story house she lived in.
The fires were widespread (12 million hectares burnt out); there were bushfires in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Kangaroo Island – an area absolutely unimaginable to Europeans. Living in a small country like The Netherlands, Nina was incapable of grasping the sheer dimensions of the catastrophe.
Not only 6 year old Nina but also most adult Dutch people.
I put it like this:
‘Imagine three Netherlands burning from one end to the other all at the same time.’
Nina, the fire brigades couldn’t put the fires out. Wouldn’t matter how many fire brigades you had, they could never put those fires out.
Unbeknownst to me, the others had followed my attempt to explain the impossible to Nina.
After she was put to bed, several of the adults started asking me about the bushfires. I pulled no punches with them. I told them about the massive extermination of wildlife.
And then I decided that I would embark on the far more daunting task of explanation.
‘Your country’s burning!’.
‘Yeah, well, it was meant to burn.’
People looking at me, eyes glazed with a mixture of wine – and total incomprehension.
I had their undivided attention.
Now I was on centre stage and dancing to a tune filled with hidden threats.
If I could explain the impossible to a child, then surely I could do the same with the adults.
It was time to talk about aboriginal fire stick agriculture…..